Jun 07 2010

Superstitions – Not All Bad?

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events (if I wear my lucky T-shirt, my team will win). In fact, research by Whitson and Galinsky shows that feeling a lack of control increases pattern perception even in unrelated areas:

Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions.

A 2006 study by Perkins and Allen shows that people with a history of physical abuse as children are more likely to believe in the paranormal, especially those beliefs that provide a sense of control, like ESP and witchcraft.The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control. The process is hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection. We see patterns that are not there and then attribute an invisible agent to explain them. At it’s simplest level, this can just be assuming cause and effect for two completely unrelated events, like wearing a certain shirt and the outcome of a sports competition. Some people are struck with the sense that there is some mystical power in the universe that connects these two events.

Recent studies by Damisch et. al. show another aspect of superstition, however – a potentially beneficial effect. Researchers looked at task performance and the carrying out ritual superstitions, like crossing one’s fingers. They found:

“Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

They also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.

To make things more interesting, other research indicates a small tendency for superstitious beliefs to correlate with a lower self-efficacy assessment. So superstitious people may have lower confidence at baseline. But what is the cause and effect? Do superstitions arise in people with low confidence as a compensatory mechanism, or does belief in superstitions cause lower confidence – perhaps a surrendering of control to the magical agent? Both directions of causation could be at work in a self-reinforcing effect.

So while acting out superstitious rituals may temporarily improve confidence and therefore performance, not having the superstitious beliefs in the first place is also associated with higher confidence. These effects have not been studied together, however, and follow up research comparing various groups would be very interesting.

This relationship between superstition, confidence, and performance reminds me of Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor. In this book he describes the research showing that people who think they are lucky actually are more “lucky” than people who believe they are unlucky. However – people seem to make their own luck. Believing in one’s own good fortune motivates people to take chances, seize opportunities, and create the opportunity for good fortune to come to fruition. Whereas “unlucky” people doom themselves by failing to do these things.

We may therefore be seeing a more general principle – self confidence, even if it is propped up by magical beliefs, translates to better “luck” and performance. But it is the self-confidence that really works, and certainly this can be derived from non-superstitious sources.

I instinctively recoil from vacuous self-affirmations (like Stewart Smalley), but the research does seem to indicate that believing in oneself really does translate into success. I prefer to bolster my self-confidence with knowledge and understanding. Call it the skeptic’s self-affirmation.

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